Plovers and Lapwings: Charadriidae

views updated


KILLDEER (Charadrius vociferus): SPECIES ACCOUNTS


Plovers (PLUH-verz or PLOH-verz) and lapwings vary in size from about 5.5 to 16 inches in length (14 to 40 centimeters) and from 1.25 to 10.5 ounces (35 to 298 grams) in weight. Members of the family tend to have chunky bodies, legs that are either short or of medium length, and short bills. Most species are black and white in color with some areas of brown or gray. Some species have bold markings on the face, dark rings around the neck, or black and white wing markings. Lapwing species sometimes have bright wattles, folds of skin that hang from the neck. Lapwings also have spurs on their wings that they use to fight with members of the same species or to defend their nests from intruders.


Plovers and lapwings are found worldwide, on all continents except Antarctica.


Plovers and lapwings occupy a wide range of habitats including seashores, the banks of freshwater lakes and ponds, grasslands, and even flooded tundra areas. Many species occupy human-associated habitats such as agricultural fields, sewage ponds, airports, golf courses, roads, and rooftops.


Plovers and lapwings eat a diverse diet of aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, animals without a backbone, small vertebrates, animals with a backbone, such as fish or lizards, and plant materials such as berries and seeds. Berries are a particularly important part of the diet of tundra species, since there are lengthy periods where few or no insects are available. Most members of this family catch food by running after prey and pecking at it with their bills. Some species use their feet to pat at or scratch the ground to reveal prey. One species, the Magellanic plover, is known for turning over stones to find prey. More aquatic plovers and lapwings, such as the red-kneed dotterel or white-tailed plover, search for food in the water, often sticking their heads underwater to snatch prey. One species, the wrybill, has a special curved bill that it uses to grab mayfly larvae or fish eggs from the bottoms of rocks.


Some plovers and lapwings remain in the same area throughout the year, while others migrate between breeding habitats and wintering habitats. Most species form flocks during migration and the nonbreeding season. However, one species, Mitchell's plover, is usually found in groups of no more than six individuals. Plovers and lapwings spend a significant amount of time running on the ground, but are good fliers as well. They are active both during the day and at night. Many species are quite noisy.


Plovers and lapwings have developed a wide variety of techniques to defend their young from potential predators. They will make loud warning calls, perform what are known as distraction displays, and, in some cases, even attack predators. Distraction displays are behaviors designed to distract predators from chicks. Plover and lapwing adults may pretend to have a broken wing to draw predators away from the nest, or may pretend to be incubating eggs at "fake" nest sites to mislead predators.

Most plovers and lapwings build "nests" that are scraped indentations on the ground. One species, however, the shore plover, builds a nest at the end of a tunnel it makes through vegetation. Some species prefer to build their nests in areas that have recently been burned, in part because these areas are usually full of new plant growth, which attracts large numbers of insects. Most plovers and lapwings are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), with a single male breeding with a single female. However, there are also instances of polygyny (puh-LIH-juh-nee), in which a single male mates with multiple females; polyandry (PAH-lee-an-dree), in which a single female mates with multiple males; and cooperative breeding, in which adults other than the parents (usually the older siblings of the new chicks) help care for chicks. Females generally lay between two and six eggs at a time, with four being most common. Eggs hatch after between eighteen and thirty-eight days. The chicks are precocial (pree-KOH-shul), meaning they are covered with down at birth and able to move. Chicks generally leave the nest soon after hatching. In most species, adults do not feed the chicks. The single exception is the Magellanic plover, which is usually able to raise only one chick per breeding season. Magellanic plover adults feed chicks by regurgitating (re-GER-jih-tate-ing; throwing up) food.


Two plover species, the black-bellied plover and golden-plover, were hunted for food in North America during the 1800s. Conservation efforts for the snowy plover and piping plover, which breed on sandy beaches, often conflict with people interested in hunting.


Among the sixty-six species of plovers and lapwings, one is considered Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction; two are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; five are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and six are Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened. The Javanese lapwing is listed as Critically Endangered and is, in fact, likely extinct—it has not been seen since 1940. The St. Helena plover is Endangered, with only about three hundred individuals remaining. The St. Helena plover declined primarily because of habitat loss, human disturbance, and predation of chicks by cats and the common myna. The shore plover is Endangered due largely to loss of habitat and predation by cats, rats, and the brown skua. There are only about 150 individuals left in the wild. Vulnerable species include the New Zealand dotterel, mountain plover, piping plover, wrybill, and sociable lapwing. Near Threatened species include the Magellenic plover, Madagascar plover, Malaysian plover, Javan plover, hooded plover, and Mitchell's plover.

KILLDEER (Charadrius vociferus): SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Physical characteristics: The killdeer is 8 to 11 inches in length (20 to 28 centimeters) and about 3.3 ounces (95 grams) in weight. It has two black bands on the breast and a dark line between the eyes. The back is gray-brown in color while the belly is white. The killdeer has long wings and a long tail.

Geographic range: The killdeer is found throughout North America except in Alaska and northern Canada, through Central America, and in parts of northwest South America.

Habitat: The killdeer makes use of a variety of open habitats including mudflats, pastures, agricultural fields, roads, and sometimes even paved parking lots.

Diet: Killdeer eat primarily invertebrates, small vertebrates such as frogs or fish, and seeds and other plant material.

Behavior and reproduction: Killdeer get their name from their call, which sounds like "killdee killdee." Killdeer are often found in small or medium-sized flocks that may include other species of shorebirds. Some populations are migratory while others remain in the same place year-round. Pairs defend territories from other members of the species during the breeding season, and sometimes during the winter as well. Killdeer are monogamous, with a single male breeding with a single female. Often, individuals keep the same mate from one year to the next. Nests are either scraped on the ground or built on gravel-covered rooftops. Females lay four eggs at a time. Eggs hatch after twenty-five days. Parents may wet their feathers before sitting on eggs to help keep them cool. Parents also defend nest and chicks from predators, animals that hunt them for food, usually by distracting potential predators.

Killdeer and people: No significant interactions between people and killdeer are known.

Conservation status: Killdeer are not currently considered threatened, although populations may be in decline in eastern North America due to interference from human activity. ∎


Physical characteristics: Northern lapwings have a long black crest, black neckband, green back, and white belly. The face is mostly black with a dark line extending under the eye.

Geographic range: Northern lapwings are found in Europe and Asia.

Habitat: Northern lapwings occupy diverse habitats including grasslands, fields, bogs, and deserts.

Diet: Northern lapwings eat a large number of earthworms as well as other invertebrates. In cold weather, they sometimes eat cattle dung.

Behavior and reproduction: Northern lapwings have been found in flocks of as many as 5,000 individuals, although flocks of about 100 are more common. Northern lapwings are usually monogamous, but there is some polygyny. Females usually lay four eggs at a time. These hatch after twenty-four to thirty-four days. Both parents help incubate the eggs and take care of chicks, but one of the parents, usually the female, usually deserts the nest before the young actually become independent.

Northern lapwings and people: Northern lapwing eggs were once collected for food in Europe.

Conservation status: The Northern lapwing is not considered threatened. In fact, its breeding range in Europe has expanded in recent times. ∎



del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 3, Hoatzin to Auks. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1996.

Perrins, Christopher, ed. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2003.

Vaughan, R. Plovers. Lavenham, U.K.: Terence Dalton Limited, 1980.

Web sites:

"Charadriidae (Lapwings and Plovers)." The Internet Bird Collection. (accessed on May 6, 2004).

"Family Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)." Animal Diversity Web, The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. (accessed on May 6, 2004).

"Plovers, Lapwings." Bird Families of the World, Cornell University. (accessed on May 6, 2004).